This Old Testament lesson has been excerpted from the second farewell speech of Joshua (see Joshua 23 for the first farewell speech).
In vv. 2-13, Joshua rehearses Yahweh's first-person history with the ancestors, the Exodus from Egypt, the wilderness wandering and the gift of the land. On the basis of this history of Yahweh's benefactions, Joshua issues a threefold challenge (vv. 14-15, 19-20, and 22-23) to which the people offer their hearty assents (vv. 16-18, 21, and 24).
The lectionary leaves out most of the historical recital (probably because of its length), but preachers need to ponder these verses to understand why Joshua concludes that the gods of Mesopotamia, the Egyptians, and the Amorites, all thoroughly defeated, offer no credible alternative to serving Yahweh. While Yahweh tells what he did for the ancestors way back when, the pronouns "you" and "your" predominate so that Joshua's audience is considered the direct recipient of Yahweh's kindness. We too acknowledge what Yahweh has done in previous generations or in previous decades of our lives. Land, towns, vineyards, and olive yards are not something achieved by Israel; they all are Yahweh's generous gift (v. 13). All that we are and have is finally God's alone, and ours only in trust. Our faith is based not only on what God has done for us lately, but on his track record, beginning with Israel and continuing throughout the history of the church.
Commentators on this chapter are uncertain whether Joshua's challenge to serve Yahweh was directed to the generation that had recently entered the land or whether he had in mind a much later generation that was now experiencing the temptations of serving the gods of Mesopotamia and Egypt, where they now lived in exile. That uncertainty need not concern us since we, more than 3,000 years later, also identify with Joshua's audience, which hears the history of Yahweh's salvation and faces the challenges and obligations inherent in this history.
In vv. 14-24, Israel is challenged to serve or vows to serve Yahweh more than a dozen times. Service of Yahweh excludes the service of other gods. It often has been said that the First Commandment implicitly incorporates all the rest of the commandments, or as St. Augustine put it, "Love God and do what you want." That is, if you love God, you will want to live for God and follow God's ways. Few of us are tempted by any gods of other nations or any gods with other names, but as Luther made clear in his explanation of the First Commandment, anything one fears, loves, and trusts above everything else--whether that is riches, self, prestige, or whatever--is one's God. We all serve many gods.
The verb "serve" is evocative in these verses. "Serve" can mean "worship" or it can mean "show loyalty toward," or, as v. 24 notes, it can also mean "obey." Like any good preacher, Joshua practices what he preaches: "As for me and my household, we will serve Yahweh" (v. 15).
The threefold response of the people shows an increasing depth of commitment. The first response in vv. 16-18 acknowledges Yahweh's history of miraculous deliverance from Egypt and generous gift of the land. Yahweh's great victories over threatening lands and their gods make serving Yahweh a no-brainer. Joshua's challenge in vv. 19-20 points out how glib promises of loyalty cannot possibly be perfectly fulfilled since Yahweh is holy and takes sin very seriously. Half-hearted loyalty to Yahweh or fearing, loving, and trusting other gods have dire consequences: Yahweh will consume you after having done you good (v. 20).
The people meet Joshua's challenge by insisting that they will indeed serve Yahweh (v. 21). Joshua then challenges the people to be witnesses against themselves, to be self-critical, and to confess their sins. Just as they would accuse the violator of any agreement to which they were witnesses, so they must examine themselves to see whether in fact they fear, love, and trust Yahweh above everything else. So must they, so must we.
Is God always first in our lives, or do we not in fact often serve other gods, by sins of omission and commission? None of us needs to be reminded that we daily sin. The clause in v. 19 that states God will not forgive transgressions or sins shows evil deeds have bad consequences and we should not put God to the test or take God's forgiveness for granted. Yet the God known to us in Jesus Christ regularly comes to us with words of absolution and forgiveness, seventy times or seventy times seven times. God loves and forgives us with the hope and expectation that such love will lead to renewal in our lives, leading to growth in faith and to faith active in love. We, too, like Joshua's audience, will be moved and empowered by God's benefactions in Jesus Christ both to serve and obey.
In v. 27, technically outside the pericope, Joshua sets up a stone, not as a witness against them or a witness to their promises, but a stone that has heard the recital of Yahweh's acts of goodness. If and when we fail to serve God alone, we are to recall the history of Yahweh with his people since that good news alone makes possible our service.